Cézanne’s Self-Portrait with a Beret (1898-9)

Most portraits, including self-portraits, tend to look like photographs, a record of the sitter's features, and the novice art lover cannot be blamed for wondering what to look at. One school of thought, outmoded today, would have you examine the brushwork and composition of a portrait, ignoring the subject altogether. Another, essentially ignoring the image, encourages you to learn about the sitter's life and other extraneous details. Our suggestion is this: learn about the common themes of art, see how a range of masters have implemented them, and then when you face a painting for the first time that seems to have no more message than a photograph, study it carefully. You will be amazed at what you can see. Take, for example, this self-portrait by Cézanne.

Back in 1988 Sidney Geist wrote a book full of odd theories about Cézanne that was dismissed by the academics. His theories were indeed curious yet he could see features that no art historian had because, as an artist himself, he used a different form of visual perception. One of his remarkable observations concerned the large "breast" in Cézanne's coat.1

Click next thumbnail to continue







 

Captions for image(s) above:

Cezanne, Self-Portrait with a Beret (1898-99) Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Click image to enlarge.

You can see it quite clearly in the scumbled brown paint at the bottom of the image with a darkened region for the areola and a daub of pigment for the nipple, placed precisely. Geist thought up some complicated psychological history for Cézanne in order to explain it but he was unaware of the centuries-old tradition in which artists present their minds as androgynous. There was, however, another large object in the image that Geist did not see.

Click next thumbnail to continue


 

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Self-Portrait with a Beret

Click image to enlarge.

In order to balance the sizable breast at the bottom of his composition Cézanne placed a large "phallus" on his head at the top. The beret is the phallus in his mind and a symbol of France. Only if you know that other artists have signified their spiritual androgyny in their self-representations are you likely to see the phallus or the breast without being shown them. Below are three similar examples. There are many, many more.

Michelangelo's Jeremiah (c.1509-10)
Velazquez's Portrait of Gongorá (1622)
Joan Miró's Self-portrait (1919)





 

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Self-Portrait with a Beret

Click image to enlarge.

Notes:

1. Geist, Interpreting Cezanne (Harvard University Press) 1988, pp. 216-7

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 02 Oct 2010. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.